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Phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs in English

How to use verbs with prepositions in English, and how to distinguish between them

Topics : Transitive verbs Intransitive verbs Phrasal-prepositional verbs

Phrasal verbs, also called particle verbs, are reputed to be the hardest point or English grammar to master. Why does one say:

I looked it up on Google,  
   but
   I looked for it on Google?

To answer this question, we first need to understand that with transitive verbs there are two different verb+particle combinations in English; on the one hand there are phrasal verbs; on the other hand prepositional verbs. One big problem here is that many guides to English use the expression "phrasal verb" indiscriminately to describe every situation in which a verb is followed by a preposition or a particle. To avoid this problem, let’s start by defining some terms.  The fact that a verb is followed by a preposition does not necessarily mean that it is a phrasal or prepositional verb. It may be quite simply an ordinary verb that happens to be followed by a preposition. Phrasal and prepositional verbs are ones for which the particle (adverb or prepositions) affects or defines the meaning of the verb.
   The next problem is that unfortunately it may seem impossible to distinguish between a phrasal verb and a prepositional verb. Phrasal and prepositional verbs appear identical in active transitive statements in which they are followed by a noun. It is only when we replace the noun with a pronoun, or try to put the sentence into the passive, that the differences become more clear, and the problems arise.
To see the differences in transitive contexts, compare the following examples:
With nouns as objects With pronoun objects (Passive - if possible  )
The car ran over the dog The car ran it  over The dog was run over by the car.
The soldiers ran over the field The soldiers ran over it. Impossible.
The editor quickly looked through  the new book. He quickly looked it through It was quickly looked through by the editor.
We looked  through the window into the garden. We looked through it into the garden. Impossible
I got off all the dirty marks. I got them all off All the dirty marks were got off by me. (Improbable, but possible)
I got off the train at Bristol. I got off it at Bristol Impossible
The examples on the yellow lines use phrasal verbs (or particle verbs) . The preposition is an integral part of the verb, defining its meaning:  these verbs are in effect two-word verbs. A pronoun object must come between the verb and the particle
► The examples on the green lines use prepositional verbs.   The preposition affects the meaning of the verb, but is not part of the verb; it belongs to the adverb phrase following the verb. A pronoun object cannot  come between the verb and the particle
 Fortunately, verbs like those in the examples above, which can be either phrasal or prepositional verbs, are uncommon. With the vast majority of verbs, there is no choice. The verb is either a phrasal verb or a prepositional verb. The problem is to know which. Why is look up a phrasal verb but look for a prepositional verb? That is a very difficult question to answer.
Still, recognising that there are two different types of verb+preposition structure should start to make things a bit easier…. but not completely clear. The real key to understanding the differences between phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs is the principle of separability.
Learning tip: when learning a phrasal or prepositional verb, always memorise it with a pronoun object, i.e.  look it up... not just look up,  look for it, not just look for.

Separable or inseparable?

The principle of separability applies to transitive verbs only (verbs which can be followed by an object).
Can a transitive verb (i.e. make) and its particle (i.e. up)  be separated by a direct object ?
 
  If the aswer is yes, it is separable, and is a phrasal verb.
  If the aswer is no, it is inseparable, and is a prepositional verb.

The key differences between separable verbs and inseparable verbs are:
Transitive Intransitive
Phrasal verbs Separable
I looked the word up
or
I looked up the word in the dictionary
Inseparable
Please sit down
Prepositional verbs Inseparable I looked for the word

1. Transitive verbs

Transitive phrasal verbs are  separable,

This means that a noun object may come between the verb and the particle, and a pronoun object must come between the verb and the particle.  There are hundreds of separable phrasal verbs in English. The table below shows the principal root verbs from which separable phrasal verbs can be created, and the principal particles that are used to create them. 
Principal roots of separable verbs Sample pronoun object Main particles used
break,  bring,  call, check, cut,    give,  hold,  keep,   leave,  let,  look,  make,  put,  run, set, take,  think,  turn,  work,  write it down, in, over, off, on,  out,  over, round,  through,  up
Example:  Let me check it out.

Almost all possible combinations of these verbs with the particles indicated will be separable. Note that each root verb will only combine with certain particles, not all of them.

Transitive phrasal verbs -  examples in different contexts

With noun objects  With pronoun objects (Passive )
The referee broke up (=stopped)  the fight  immediately.
or:  The referee broke the fight up immediately.
He broke it up immediately. The fight was immediately broken up by the referee.
The old lady made out (=wrote) the cheque very slowly.
or:  The old lady made the cheque out very slowly.
She made it out very slowly The cheque was made out by the old lady very slowly.
He took up (=started) golf when he retired.
or:  He took  golf up when he retired.
He took it up when he retired improbable
The robbers set off (=started) the alarm  as they entered the bank.
or:  The robbers set  the alarm off as they entered the bank.
They set it off as they entered the bank The alarm was set off as the robbers entered the bank.
The men managed to put out (=extinguish) the fire by themselves.
or:  The men managed to put the fire out by themselves
They managed to put it out by themselves. The fire was put out by the men, by themselves.
The soldiers got up (=erected) their tents in two minutes.
or:  The soldiers got their tents up in two minutes.
They got them up in two minutes. The tents were got up in two minutes.
I put down    (= attribute) your success to hard work
or:  I put your success down to hard work.
I put it down to hard work. His success was put down to hard work.

Transitive prepositional verbs are  inseparable


General features of prepositional verbs: Prepositional verbs can be formed from a large number of root verbs, and an almost full range of prepositions.
Sample root verbs Main prepositions used Sample  object
go, fall, look, think;agree, believe, are, consist, insist, laugh, look, pay, result, wait, work….  etc. About, after, at,  before, by, for,  from,  on,  to,  down, in, over, of, off, on,  out,  round,  through,  up, without it
Example:   We went (quickly) through it last night.
Note that this list  contains verbs and prepositions that are also used in transitive phrasal verbs, plus some additional prepositions , notably : by, for, on, and without. Take particular note of for :  if a verb is made using for, it must be a prepositional verb.  Examples ;  ask for, look for, search for,  pay for,  go for,  make for, etc.

Transitive prepositional verbs: more examples in context:
With noun objects With pronoun objects Passive 
The climbers went up (=ascended) the mountain very slowly.
or The climbers went very slowly up (=ascended) the mountain.
They went up it very slowly  Improbable
They came through (=passed) their exam very well. They came through it very well Improbable
We're depending on your support, totally. We're totally depending on it. Your support is being depended on. (possible but unlikely)
The students were looking intently at (= studying) the notice board.
or The students were looking at  the notice board intently.
They were looking intently at it , or
They were looking at it intently.


2. Intransitive verbs

With intransitive verbs there is no distinction between phrasal and prepositional verbs. All intransitive verbs with particles are inseparable.
Principle root verbs Main particles used
come, do,  fall,  go, sit;  break,  bring,  call, check, cut,    give,  hold,  keep,   leave,  let,  look,  make,  put,  run, set, take, think, turn, work, write About, after, at,  before, by, for,  from,  on,  to,  down, in, over, off, on,  out,  round,  through,  up, without
Example:   Please sit down.
Here are a few examples of intransitive verbs:

Flight BA04 to New York will take off at 12.33.
I slipped over on a banana skin and broke my leg.
Several students showed up late
Covid-19 first broke out in China
Tomorrow morning, we all have to get up at 5.30.
Once the Queen had taken her place, the guests all sat quietly down.
The alarm went off just as the bank was shutting.    


 Special cases and exceptions

General
Most verbs follow the rules outlined above; some do not. As with so many rules, there are exceptions. The most prolific exceptions are with the verb get (see below), but there are also a number of verbs, for example verbs with into or round, that do not reflect the general rules. We can say turn into something, or turn something into but the meanings are different. We say to look round a house, but to take something round to someone’s house. Examples like these just have to be learned.

Verbs using get

The verb get is used in many phrasal and prepositional verbs. Some words, such as get off, are phrasal verbs or prepositional verbs according to their meaning. For more details see the page on uses of get.

3. Phrasal-prepositional verbs (or double particle verbs).

English has a good number of  verbs that appear to be formed on the structure verb+particle+particle.
In most cases, these are prepositional verbs in which the root verb is already a phrasal verb.
Phrasal prepositional verbs are transitive, and in reality, the structure of these verbs is actually  {phrasal-verb} + preposition.
Once this is understood, usage should not be hard to follow. They behave in the same way as ordinary prepositional verbs.

Using nouns Using pronoun objects (Passive )
Everyone looked forward to the event. Everyone looked forward to it. It was looked forward to by everyone.
The prisoners broke out of their cells. They broke out of them. The cells were broken out of.
The airline did away with tickets The airline did away with them Tickets were done away with.
The builders got on with the work They got on with it. The work was got on with by the builders.



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Les verbes à préposition et à particule


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